“The single biggest problem in communication is the
illusion that it has taken place.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
Ineffective communication in relationships typically leads to two problems: (1) our partners don’t understand us, and (2) we think that they do. As a result, problems can go unsolved for years, leading to a lot of resentment, and bringing many couples to the brink of splitting up.
Unfortunately, even though we know it’s important, effective communication in close relationships often feels difficult to attain. I am talking here of the most difficult type of communication: communication about problems. Although it’s also important to learn how to communicate the good stuff (show appreciation, express positive feelings, etc), most people have a much harder time communicating when the going gets rough.
The more important the relationship is to you, the more difficult it is to communicate clearly about the difficult things. You love your partner so much. Their happiness is central to your own. Saying something that could upset them, create tension, and risk conflict is genuinely hard.
Another problem is that traditional advice on communication places heavy emphasis on the packaging – how you should say what you want to say – to the point of missing the purpose all together. We are often encouraged to sugarcoat things so much that our partner can no longer clearly understand our position.
As an example, let’s talk about a married woman; I’ll call her Karen. For the past three months, Karen’s husband has become increasingly busy. Even when he is home, he’s usually working at his computer. Karen is very upset. She feels neglected and taken for granted. When she finds herself wishing that she had never married him, she decides it is time to communicate with her husband.
Let’s consider two versions of how Karen might communicate her problem.
Version A [in a sweet, quiet tone]: Babe, I have been feeling a tad, umm… upset that we don’t spend much time together anymore… I am so sorry to bug you with this. I know with the kids and your job it’s super busy, so I am not blaming you or anything, I totally understand. Just maybe we can find a little time… couples should spend time together, right?
Version B [in a natural, but firm tone]: I am feeling neglected and taken for granted. I feel that it is not a priority for you to spend time with me anymore. This is a very serious issue and I am very upset about it.
In both versions, Karen communicates the same main message: she wants to spend more time with her husband. But which message is more effective? Version A is tentative. It comes across as much less serious. It is also a lot easier to dismiss. On the other hand, Version B presents the problem as is. It is honest, direct, and hard to dismiss. It sends a clear message that something needs to change. Unfortunately, too often, we communicate important problems ineffectively. Too afraid to upset our partners and shake things up, we choose to present our concerns in ways that are ineffective.
I didn’t always know how to communicate effectively. I used to believe that as long as I had conveyed the information in any way at all, then I had done my part. I believed that the importance of the issues I was bringing up was self-evident. I was afraid to shake things up, and very concerned about upsetting my partner – no matter what the issue.
Last year, my husband and I went through a marital crisis. Our relationship hit a tipping point, with many unresolved issues weighing it down. The funny thing is that all along we thought that we were communicating! The truth is that we were communicating, but ineffectively. We conveyed only a small part of the message, neglecting to make it clear how we felt about issues and how important they were to us. Like in Version A of Karen’s message to her husband, where she conveyed only the essence of the message, the way we were communicating made it difficult to gauge how important the issue was. Our marital crisis led to tremendous personal growth for both myself and my husband. How I communicate with my husband, and everyone else for that matter, has changed substantially.
Our relationships are complicated, intricate, and so very important to us. What I am about to suggest here works wonders for me. However, use your own judgement to decide what you’d like to apply in your own relationships. If problems are serious, I would highly recommend a visit to a good therapist.
Now – for the guidelines!
1. engage in Self-reflection
So, something is bothering you. You feel angry, or upset, or frustrated, or plain sad. Whatever it may be, your emotions are often your first to sign that there is a problem.
Now, forget about anyone else’s perspective for a moment. Don’t think about why your partner is behaving the way they do. Don’t try to gauge how they will respond if you bring up the issue. Focus on yourself. Try to understand exactly what is bothering you. It might be many things, but often there are a few that are the most important. If a certain problem brings about more emotion, it is probably one of the central issues. If something brings you to tears, it is almost certainly crucial. Your goal at this stage should be to understand where you stand. Only when you understand yourself is there any hope for effective communication. Karen may have done this in Version B from the earlier example. The clarity of her words suggests that she has taken the time to think about what is bothering her.
You don’t have to start solving the problem at this point. This can take place later, after you’ve had a chance to talk it over with your partner. Even then, each of you may need more time to think things through. This is simply about understanding yourself.
When the situation is very serious, I find it immensely helpful to write stuff down. Writing can help bring about clarity on some of our most serious issues, bringing coherence and order where chaos previously ruled the day. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to get started:
1. How am I feeling?
2. What is bothering me?
3. How important is this issue to me?
When you share your feelings on the issue(s) with your partner, you may want to bring up some of the answers to these questions.
2. Don’t DOWNplay the issue
One of the biggest problems with how some of us communicate is that we sugar coat important issues – just like Karen in Version A above. Sometimes, even though something can be virtually eating us up on the inside, when we talk with our partner it sounds like a mild annoyance. It is easy to understand why we do this: we don’t want to upset our partner, we want to keep the peace. Unfortunately, down playing problems prevents our partner from truly understanding us. And if we don’t express ourselves clearly, we can hardly blame them for not understanding us properly.
Often, we down play the issue by intentionally suppressing our emotions, which brings me to my next point.
3. Don’t suppress your emotions
“The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate” ~Joseph Priestley
Emotions don’t only help you find what is bothering you and what is most important to you, they are also an amazing communication tool. Without them, your message may not be understood.
Our partners don’t live inside our heads. They need to be shown in clear, effective ways, how we feel. There is nothing more effective than letting your emotions show. Don’t sugar coat your message, and don’t drain it of emotion either. Present it how it comes naturally to you.
Of course, apply your judgement. You don’t want to end up dramatizing, or making a big deal out of everything. But, suppressed emotions can do at least as much damage as exaggerated ones. Remember, if your tone and body language are saying that this is not a big deal, then this is how your partner is likely to interpret you.
4. Provide Self-Validation
We are often so close with our partners that we can no longer tell where our opinions end and theirs begin. In Version A of Karen’s message to her husband, she asks him to validate her perspective. ”Couples should spend time together, right?” she asks. What if, for example, he thinks that making a big income is more important than spending time together? Or, maybe he feels that they already spend enough time together. If this is the case, Karen might feel lost and confused. Her husband disagrees with her basic premise, what should she do?
Self-validation can provide Karen with the support she needs, regardless of her husband’s opinions. He may not agree with her, but by validating herself, she can hold on to her own perspective and reassure herself that her viewpoint is valid. He may have a different point of view, but that doesn’t invalidate her own.
Self-validation is about telling yourself that your point of view is valid, and your feelings reasonable, even when your partner doesn’t think so. By practicing self-validation, you also give your partner the right to their own opinions. You no longer want them to lie to make you feel better. You don’t feel inclined to try to force them to agree with you, because you don’t need their consent to establish what is right for you. You know how you feel and what you think, and this is what you are out to communicate.
Without self-validation, we end up relying on our partners too much. If they disagree, it can shake our entire world. By providing yourself with self-validation, you make yourself feel better, relieve your partner of an unnecessary burden, and make room for honest communication.
Of course, your partner’s opinion also matters, and understanding their point of view is essential for problem solving. However, you should be able to trust your own feelings and views regardless of whether your partner is able to take on your perspective.
5. Communicate Before Resentment Builds Up
In the example above, Karen spent three months suffering in silence. She waited until she was starting to regret marrying her husband. Unfortunately, many people wait a lot longer. It isn’t uncommon for spouses to wait years before they finally communicate their perspective clearly. By that time, they can’t take it any more, and they usually find the courage to speak up – but, by this point, the relationships is usually in serious trouble.
Don’t wait. If something is bothering you, say it – and say it clearly. A little discomfort today may save both yourself and your partner a lot of unnecessary pain in the long run.
I often find that, when discussing relationships, people are often interested in improving their partner’s skills. The good news is that partners often imitate each other. When one partner begins communicating effectively, in time, the other one often follows suit. So, if you want your partner to communicate effectively, you simply need to lead by example.
Let me end with a beautiful quote on love and communication:
“Have the courage to be sincere, clear and honest.
This opens the door to deeper communication all around.
It creates self-empowerment and the kind of connections with others we all want in life.
Speaking from the heart frees us from the secrets that burden us.
These secrets are what make us sick or fearful.
Speaking truth helps you get clarity on your real heart directives.” ~Sara Paddison